Be cool and plunge into the New Year!
— Created January 3, 2024 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
All the really cool – and we mean that quite literally – people will be starting the New Year off in fine form Monday at noon at Double Bluff Beach in Freeland, home of Whidbey Island’s annual Polar Bear Dive.
A nearly two-decades-old tradition for many islanders, the Polar Bear Dive is a fundraiser for the Island County 4-H Teen Leadership Club. Registration for the event is currently open online at swparks.org/event/polar-bear-dive or register the day of, beginning at 10:30 a.m. Cost to participate is $10 per person, which does NOT include a T-shirt. (Polar Bear Dive gear can be purchased separately through the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation website listed above.)
Jon Gabelein is the founder of the Polar Bear Dive. He said the appeal of plunging into the cold water – no matter the weather – comes down to community spirit.
“It’s a very cool community celebration on day one of the New Year,” he said. “It’s a chance to come together and hang out with some literally cool islanders. It’s a crazy thing to do. Some people call it seven seconds of fury; it’s really cold.
“It’s for all ages, too,” Gabelein continued. “We get everything from little kids to senior citizens and everything in between. It’s a tradition for a lot of families on the island. It’s literally the first community activity of the year.
Since its inception, the Polar Bear Dive has benefitted various nonprofit organizations, but the past several years the 4-H Teen Leadership Club has not only been the recipient of the proceeds from the dive, club members organize and run the event.
“They handle the sponsors, design the T-shirts, handle all the promotion,” said Gabelein, who is the advisor of the Teen Leadership Club. “The students will be there making announcements, serving coffee, tending the bonfires. It’s really student led, I’m just there to help navigate it all.”
Proceeds earned from the event help the leadership club plan and implement several community activities throughout the year. Whether it’s a Halloween party, a bingo night, or providing food to local food banks for the holidays, it all helps develop important skills.
“We do a lot of service projects throughout the year,” said Gabelein. “The money helps fund all kinds of cool things the students host and they’re all free for the people who come. I think that helps students develop a variety of life skills, like organization, public speaking, time management. It also allows them to make a positive difference in the community. It’s an opportunity to be a positive contributor to their community as a youth, not waiting until they’re an adult. They get a lot out of it.”
Club members agree.
“Organizing events like the Polar Bear Dive gives us the opportunity to develop community organizing and leadership skills,” agreed 13-year-old Laken Simpson, who has been involved in 4-H for nearly three years. “It’s fun to do something that matters with our community.”
Simpson’s interest in leadership began early and has been nurtured through the Teen Leadership Club.
“I had done leadership back when I was in elementary school just to try it out,” Simpson said. “I realized that it made me happy to help people and make things happen. I also knew that I would get to meet new people and make new friends.”
“Growing closer to friends and the ability to grow more leadership skills [has been the best thing about the 4-H Teen Leadership Club],” said Olivia Hall, 13, who has been a member for about a year. She said other club members encouraged her to join.
“I believe that helping 4-H is really beneficial because we wouldn’t be able to hold these events such as the Polar Bear Dive without the support of the community,” she said.
This is 13-year-old Adeline Maynes’ first year in 4-H.
“I think that supporting 4-H is important because it gives youth a chance to get involved in their community,” she said. “It makes me feel happy to be able to plan events that the community can enjoy.”
Gabelein said the group gets a big boost from local business sponsors to help put the event on every year. Finding those sponsors and getting them on board is another educational aspect of the leadership program.
“It takes a lot of confidence and practice to talk to people in public,” he said. “We practice with each other, because that’s a huge piece of this, talking to business owners in the community. It’s a huge skill in and of itself. “
So, whether one decides to just dip their toes in the water or take the full plunge, the Polar Bear Dive is a great activity to consider to get the New Year off to a rousing start.
“It’s a great personal challenge and once you complete it, you feel more confident in overcoming everything else. If you can do this, it gives you confidence,” said Gabelein, who has dived in every year. “It’s quite a challenge to jump in that water when you don’t need to. Some people will go in up to their ankles or knees. It’s ‘choose your own adventure time,’ really.”